How Sicko Priests Got Away With It

The Vatican says it is doing everything it can to take pedophile priests out of circulation. If that’s true, why are there so many wandering around?


Father Daniel Buck was a popular priest around the suburbs of Chicago in the 1970s and early `80s. According to notes in his extensive personnel file released last week by the Chicago diocese, he was especially fond of hosting Catholic youth retreats at a vacation cabin where he was part owner. But Buck was removed from ministry in 2002, after the Chicago Archdiocese said it had confirmed four credible allegations of sexual abuse against pre-pubescent and adolescent girls dating back to the mid 70s, according to his file.

Father Buck was caught because he left a guilty trail, including an undisputedly perverted love note that a victim’s mother said she found hidden in her daughter’s bedroom (PDF) . It took nearly 20 years between the first allegation and his ultimate removal. The letter, handwritten on Snoopy stationary and signed by the priest, is included in Buck’s 914-page abuse dossier (PDF) released last week by the Chicago archdiocese:

“I loved your outfit, the way it covered (and uncovered) various delightful parts of you,” Buck allegedly wrote the girl, who was just 11 when he allegedly first lured her into a sexual relationship, according to the complaint against him. “I tried to be careful, but I couldn’t resist touching your legs and your neck … Your cute little belly button was like a magnet to me. I hope you didn’t mind me taking a peek at it every chance I got, and searching for it with my naughty fingers … I’m sorry if I embarrassed you at all, but I’m only human and I can’t resist you. I go nuts every time I realize God has given me such a beautiful, warm, caring, loving friend.”

Father Buck’s letter, which he does not deny writing, is dated June 8, 1984, and is part of a massive document dump by the Chicago Archdiocese in an apparent effort by the outgoing archbishop, Cardinal Francis George, to leave his tenure at the archdiocese with a clear conscience. It is hand-written and signed by the priest, providing what it seems could have been evidence for a slam-dunk sex abuse case against the prelate. She was a minor; he was 39 and, by his own apparent handwritten confession, had touched her intimately with his “naughty fingers” on more than one occasion over the course of four years—which is against the law.

But Buck was never arrested and he never went to jail. In part, because neither the recipient of his love note nor any of his other victims ever pressed criminal charges against him in the secular court. Neither did the archdiocese, even when it put Buck on watch shortly after the girl’s mother complained in 1984. His dossier includes an internal memo dated several weeks after the letter was discovered that says: “parents upset about a priest 39 keeping company with a girl… showed a letter … sick….” He was removed in 2002 when the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People was adopted by all dioceses of the American Catholic church.

Today, Buck is on a pension, apparently living at the Cardinal Stritch Retreat House in suburban Chicago, which is the last known address for him and a handful of the other priests listed in the Chicago cache of offenders. When he was removed from ministry, he was ordered to a life of prayer, but the Cardinal Stritch Retreat House, as a place of penance, is no hardship post; it is a nature preserve with 900 acres of forest and water, according to its website.

If Buck and priests like him had been teachers, doctors or plumbers, it wouldn’t have mattered if the victims had the courage to cooperate with police; the letter could easily have been enough to convict, according to victims’ rights groups who say clergy get special treatment in the eyes of the law. In other words, if he weren’t a priest, he could well be in jail today.

Many of the clerical abuse cases and cover-ups exposed in the Chicago files mirror similar crime caches released by other dioceses in recent years. They are meant to show that the Church has adopted a new line of transparency on clerical sex abuse. The Vatican under Pope Francis has taken some particularly positive steps towards even greater transparency, starting with a special commission Francis assigned in December to address the problem of clerical sex abuse. Last week, Francis assigned another special commission. This one is meant to help speed up the appeals processes by priests who say they have been wrongly convicted of sex abuse by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, essentially securing a definitive conviction or overturning guilty verdicts much faster.

To some, the Catholic church’s transparency only causes more suspicion, because it proves that while the church may finally be owning up to years of lies now, it is still protecting its clergy. Instead of being turned over to authorities, the priests have been given a pass and the vast majority are sill being provided for and protected.

The website Bishop Accountability keeps some of the most extensive records on allegations of priestly abuse available. Among the thousands of allegedly abusing priests in its database who are still alive are cases like that of Gil Gustafson of Minneapolis who was declared disabled because of his pedophilia by the Minneapolis and St. Paul Archdiocese, according to detailed letters released by attorney Jeffrey Anderson, in order to continue to get paid by the diocese and continue working in the diocese leadership program.

According to court documents released in Minneapolis (PDF), Gustafson was convicted by a secular court for abusing a young boy in 1983. He was fined $40 and sentenced to six months in jail, of which he served less than five months. Gustafson then spent the next 30 years in paid leadership consultancy roles throughout the archdiocese of Minneapolis and St. Paul, according to his employment records. He now lives alone in St. Paul, according to local news reports.

Another priest, Father Thomas Harkins, was removed from ministry after admitting sexually abusing young girls in the 1980s in New Jersey, according to a court document outlining a $195,000 settlement to multiple victims of the priest. After being assigned as a prison chaplain for a brief period, the New Jersey church removed him from ministry in 2002 and he went on to get a job as a Transportation Safety Administration (TSA) official at Philadelphia International Airport, where he was interviewed on camera by local press. The list goes on.

Get The Beast In Your Inbox!

Daily Digest

Start and finish your day with the top stories from The Daily Beast.

Cheat Sheet

A speedy, smart summary of all the news you need to know (and nothing you don't).

By clicking “Subscribe,” you agree to have read the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy
Thank You!
You are now subscribed to the Daily Digest and Cheat Sheet. We will not share your email with anyone for any reason.

The details of the abuse may change, running the gamut from fondling and masturbation to full penetration and child pornography, but the pattern is largely the same: very few abusers ever face criminal courts, and only a scant few face Vatican justice.

Last year the Vatican admitted that it had defrocked 848 priests between 2004 and 2013, without specifying where they are from. The number is small in relation to the total number of known allegations and proven abuses kept by victims’ groups.

The American Church is thought to have the highest number of cases, an assumption supported by the fact it has paid out the astronomical sum of $2.5 billion in compensation to victims through legal settlements, according to Vatican records released to the United Nations last year. It also paid some $74 million in counseling services and about $50 million in legal fees, according to Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, the Vatican’s Geneva envoy who faced a United Nations Committee on Torture last May.

“There’s no climate of impunity,” Tomasi told the U.N. panel. “There’s total commitment to clean the house, to work to not have a repetition of abuses.” But Tomasi also said, “The Holy See wishes to reiterate that the persons who live in a particular country are under the jurisdiction of the legitimate authorities of that country and are thus subject to the domestic law and the consequences contained therein. State authorities are obligated to protect, and when necessary, prosecute persons under their jurisdiction.”

If that’s the case, then why don’t dioceses do more to help the state protect the children and prosecute their abusers?

According to Tomasi’s records, there are fewer than 150 priests—current and defrocked—known to be in jails for sex abuse worldwide right now. But that figure begs the question: where are the rest? “Of the proven, admitted and credibly accused child molesting clerics, some are deceased, a few are imprisoned, a few live in church facilities and are allegedly monitored,” David Clohessy, the head of the Survivors Network for Those Abused By Priests or SNAP told The Daily Beast. “But we believe the vast majority have never been defrocked, so they keep collecting church paychecks while living and working among unsuspecting families, neighbors, and colleagues, while also working hard to stay beneath the radar.”

If Clohessy is right then there are a great many known pedophile priests wandering around the world who still have access to minors, not just in the United States, but across Europe and elsewhere as well.

“There is no way to know of course, but it is very safe to say hundreds, and it may be more accurate to say thousands,” Clohessy told The Daily Beast when asked to estimate just how many predators are still loose. The Church officials acknowledge 6,300 accusations, so by Clohessy’s lights the true number of perpetrators may be twice that. “I truly believe that most predator priests are out there living alone.”

The documents in the recent disclosures by the American dioceses show how the Church has shuffled errant priests around to keep them out of jail, and they tend to back up Clohessy’s claims. The documents also highlight the apparent complicity by secular law enforcement in keeping some of these offenders out of jail.

Jason Berry, investigative journalist and author of the groundbreaking book on clerical sex abuse Lead Us Not Into Temptation, says that the uneasy relationship between the Lord’s men and the law is multi-layered. “The habitual response of bishops through the 1980s was to defend these men internally, try to fix them up with great margins of tolerance and conceal what they had done,” Berry told The Daily Beast. The Church would “deal with the families in as limited way as possible, and pay them hush money.”

Now, says Berry, things have changed and the more likely answer to why predator priests get a pass is that the cops are reluctant to start a long, expensive row. “Let’s face it, elected officials and public prosecutors respond to public opinion, so where you’ve had intense media coverage or legal activity, you’re going to have a more aggressive prosecutorial response,” he says. But when the Catholic church is strong in a given diocese, and the parish is content, there is less urgency.

“Very few district attorneys are willing to go after a bishop,” says Berry. “The prosecutors run for office and worry about the Catholic vote. I suspect many of them also think that investigating and seeking to indict a bishop will also strain an office’s finances.”

Clohessy agrees. “In general I think police and prosecutors are overworked, underfunded and know that charismatic, educated criminals with organizational backing are much tougher to convict than uneducated criminals who operate on their own,” Clohessy told The Daily Beast. “Many prosecutors have political ambitions and know that they’ll be called ‘anti-Catholic’ if they go after priests and bishops who commit and conceal child sex crimes. Some DAs think, ‘With my limited resources, I can nail one very popular and savvy predator priest who’s hired—with his bishop’s help—the best defense lawyer in town. Or I can nail 10 or 12 unpopular purse-snatchers and carjackers who’ll all have an overwhelmed public defender.’ And they often choose the latter.”

Few people know the dysfunctional inner workings of a Catholic diocese in trouble better than Jennifer Haselberger, a lawyer who served as Chancellor for Canonical Affairs in the troubled St. Paul and Minneapolis diocese from 2008 to 2013. According to an extensive July 2014 affidavit given by Haselberger (PDF) to the state of Minnesota as part of a claim against the Archdiocese of Minneapolis and Saint Paul, the lies and deceit were still standard operating procedure when she resigned in 2013 after months of what she calls “harassment, threats and intimidation.”

Attorney Jeffrey Anderson, who has led the cause for victims in parishes across the United States and can take credit for negotiating the release of thousands of once-sealed documents buried in parish archives, calls Haselberger’s admissions, “the most stinging and broad-ranging indictment I’ve ever seen of these practices,” according to the Minneapolis and St. Paul Pioneer Press.

Her affidavit reads like a roadmap for the depraved. She gives scores of examples including that of Father Richard Boyd, who was convicted of possessing child pornography in 1984 with the “largest collection of child pornography uncovered in the upper Midwest.” Yet Boyd was returned to ministry in 2003, a year after the so-called “one-strike” policy had been instituted by the American Church. Under the new rules known abusers would no longer get a second chance, which led to the ousting of thousands of clergy nationwide. But not Boyd. In 2005, after Haselberger pushed to reopen his case, Boyd was investigated and dismissed definitively by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome, as outlined in Haselberger’s affidavit. But only because she pushed the issue, she says. Still, Haselberger writes that Boyd did not make the list of offenders released by the Minnesota Church in 2014.

Haselberger’s affidavit outlines what she claims was a consistent string of offenses by a number of prelates she says she was essentially asked to sign off on when she worked under Archbishop John Nienstedt, Bishop Lee Piche, and Vicar General Kevin McDonough, who, she claims, pressured her to lie. Nienstedt officially apologized for his shortcomings in a column in the archdiocese newsletter The Catholic Spirit. “The first thing that must be acknowledged is that over the last decade some serious mistakes have been made,” he wrote, but added, “We have indeed created many policies, procedures and practices designed to prevent and address clergy sexual misconduct.”

According to Haselberger, the archdiocese ignored not only blatant secular crimes, but obvious canonical crimes as well. One priest, whose name has been removed from the published affidavit, allegedly seduced women and then absolved his victims of sins. That alone should have got him banned by the Vatican. But because he is still a practicing pastor, his name was instead blocked from her publicized affidavit. “When the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis ‘investigated’ something, it was always done in such a way as to ensure that we concluded the investigation with less clarity than we began with,” she says.

Haselberger says she was also discouraged from keeping lists of abusers since they might someday be used against the diocese. “Father McDonough was advising against keeping lists of accused priests because of the extreme likelihood that such lists would be sought in litigation resulting from the probable passage of the Child Victims Act (which has since been passed),” she wrote in her affidavit. Haselberg also claims that as late as 2011, she was instructed to alter the records so the archdiocese didn’t have to renew background checks on priests, even though Rome had demanded from 2002 onwards that such checks take place. “We made absolutely no progress in updating background checks,” she says. “Instead, I was instructed to change the testimonial form that I was using to one that did not require the date of the background check to be given.”

Even though victims groups see Haselberg as a heroine, she feels she could have done more. “I was frustrated with the lack of attention given to the issue of child protection,” she writes. “Especially given how much time and attention was being directed towards other matters.”

Those “other matters” included the rejection of an applicant for a job as principal of a Catholic school as “unsuitable” because he had not attended a Catholic school, and, as such could not demonstrate a proper interest in Catholic education. “I was never able to engage any senior official in a discussion about the unsuitability of having a priest with an admitted sexual attraction to 12-year-old boys administering a high school,” Haselberg writes.

Haselberg says she was encouraged to consider the possibility that some allegations against priests could prove to be false, and some certainly are. Los Angeles attorney Donald Steier claims that half of all accusations prove false once investigated. But according to Francesco Cesareo, head of the National Review Board for the U.S. Bishops Secretariat for Child and Youth Protection, charged with advising American dioceses on policies and practices in handling clerical abuse, there has been no surge in fraudulent reports. In an interview with the National Catholic Register Cesareo said, “Those cases emerge, but I wouldn’t say that there’s a tidal wave of false accusations. The best way to deal with this is every accusation is to be taken seriously.”

For all the transparency the Vatican may say it requires, it is still up to the practitioners in the field to follow through, which, according to victims’ groups and Church officials, is where things fall apart.

For the moment, most offenders, and their erstwhile protectors, are being more careful. Some things have changed a lot since 1984 when the errant Father Buck wrote to his young love interest. Snoopy stationary has given way to Snapchat. Letters would not be hidden away in bedrooms but stored on cell phones. Still, when one reads Buck’s missive to his 11-year-old victim, it is easy to imagine similar words being repeated by the uncounted hundreds or thousands of priests like him who are still among us:

“Finally I promise that I will resist the urge to rip off your clothes… when other people are around, that is. I hope you’ll be careful with your hands, too. Perhaps prayer will help you overcome your overwhelming biological urges,” Buck wrote, according to the letter in his dossier. “But don’t pray too much! Stay as sweet as you are, don’t change a thing for me (except, of course, your underwear every now and then!) I’ll gladly help. Your forever friend, Dan”

He ended the letter with a thinly veiled warning: “PS: Needless to say, I’d appreciate it if you’d keep this letter in a secure place, away from curious eyes!”

The medium changes, the message stays the same.